By JOHN ANDREWS
RAROTONGA - Helen Clark went to the Cook Islands as a friend of New Zealand's closest constitutional neighbour.
But behind the warm greetings, she left no one in any doubt that the price of cutting the political apron strings that bind the two countries could prove costly to the tiny Pacific nation.
New Zealand's concerns surrounding her official visit to the Cooks, the first in a long time by a New Zealand leader, emerged during an impromptu media conference before she attended a state dinner in her honour.
The thorny question of the Cooks' independence from New Zealand has been at the back of the minds of New Zealand officials who are aware of Cook Island politicians pondering full Cooks' membership of the United Nations and the Commonwealth.
Ms Clark was asked if, during her private talks with the Cooks' Prime Minister, Dr Terepai Maoate, she had expressed reservations about any move by the Cooks to become a fully fledged member of the two international bodies.
She said she had pointed out New Zealand citizenship implications for Cook Islanders if the Cooks sought sovereignty, enabling them to be a member in their own right.
If the Cooks wanted to become a sovereign nation, it needed its own citizenship. Cook Islanders would remain New Zealand citizens but "if they want to change it, they can."
Ms Clark said: "If they want to exert full independence, New Zealand will not stand in their way."
While New Zealand was happy for the status quo to remain, it was up to the Cooks to decide how they wanted to evolve.
Norman George, the Cook Islands deputy Prime Minister, said that, in his view, his country would not seek independence. It was an academic issue never to be raised.
There are indications that the Cooks' leaders were taken by surprise by New Zealand's stance when Dr Maoate apparently asked Ms Clark about her Government's attitude to the Cook Islands' efforts to upgrade its international profile.
After Ms Clark departed, New Zealand officials in Rarotonga are understood to have New Zealand's position abundantly clear - declare independence and lose citizenship rights.
Dr James Gosselin, international legal adviser to the Cooks Government, said that successive governments had explored UN membership at an appropriate time. ' "We intend carrying out an intensive feasibility study of UN membership this year."
The Cook Islands and Niue are the only Pacific Forum member countries which are not full UN members.
"Forum countries in the UN formulate a block," Dr Gosselin said. " We feel it is time to look at becoming more directly involved in the process."
From the moment Helen Clark stepped off her RNZAF 727 aircraft, she received right royal treatment.
She was hoisted high on a pa'ata, a traditional chair - a ceremony reserved for high chiefs - then borne slowly through a sea of cultural performers and singers across Rarotonga's airport tarmac.
By the time she boarded her plane 34 hours later, she had been spontaneously hugged by many who could get close enough to her, and showered with gifts, flowers and shell leis.